Put Your Hands, and Your Feet, Into the Soil

Now and again, I learn something interesting. Yes, yes, every day, I’m learning something new—typically frightening information like how there is PFAS now even in raindrops (more on that topic soon), or how we’ve already crossed several climate tipping points.

But other times I learn facts that deepen some of our Gaian practices. For example, I learned two bits this past month from my osteopath that strengthen both the reasoning behind spending time in nature and especially the practice of Earthing and barefoot walking.

Exploring more reasons to get your feet (and hands) into the dirt. (Image from Ron Lach via Pexels)

Sesame Seed Bones

First, let’s talk about sesamoid bones. These little bones are named after the Arabic word for sesame seed, because they’re little. And every person has many of these (a variable number on individuals—but reportedly up to 42!)1 in our bodies, mostly our wrists and feet. Though there’s also a bigger one that we’re all familiar with: the patella, or knee cap.

What do they do? Here’s the definitional explanation: “A sesamoid bone is a small bone that is commonly found embedded within a muscle or tendon near joint surfaces, existing as focal areas of ossification and functioning as a pulley to alleviate stress on that particular muscle or tendon.” They’re like little muscle levers to prevent the muscles from wearing out. That’s pretty cool. But the weird thing is that most basic foot bone diagrams don’t even have these labeled—not even the two big ones on our big toe that all of us have.

Raise ten of your sesamoid bones if you’ve heard of sesamoid bones. (Basic foot bone image from BruceBlaus via Wikipedia; sesamoids from Mikael Häggström via Wikipedia)

I certainly had never heard of them and probably never would have if I had not jammed my big toe months ago and it hadn’t continued to bother me. I brought this complaint to my osteopath a month back and she manipulated the toe and told me about sesamoid bones and how today many doctors assume they don’t serve any purpose (and will even remove them from people with foot problems).

Instead, she noted they actually serve an important purpose in balance, and after those surgeries, older people often have difficulties with balance and can fall. On another visit, I talked to her again after a not so successful search about these bones. Nothing on balance on the web, but she also noted that textbooks from before the 1940s would have had more on their function.

This doesn’t come as a surprise: we regularly forget knowledge as cultures and technologies change. Two examples: today, few captains know how to navigate via stars and few doctors know how to deliver breech babies—they rely on technologies instead. After a century of developing and wearing higher tech shoes, and with more of medicine surgical in nature rather than manipulating the bones and muscles (or babies’ positions) to sustain health, why would there be much of a literature on this?

I am no expert on this subject—though I can say just one session was enough to resolve my months-long toe issue—but it does fit with the idea that barefoot walking offers far more information on your surroundings and position in space. With all the nerves in your foot, this already made sense. Add to that the small army of microbones, which most likely enhances this proprioception ability as well. To me, this again suggests the value of taking your shoe off and taking a walk, whether in the woods or even your backyard—both to fully explore the wider world we inhabit, as well as fully massage and stimulate this whole world of bones on the bottom of our feet, and train and strengthen our bodies’ proprioception abilities.

Get out and earth! (Image from Yan Krukov via Pexels)

The Antidepressant Properties of Dirt

As we talked, my osteopath mentioned another study as well: about how soil has better antidepressant properties than Prozac. This time my skeptical alarm system sounded at high alert and I just smiled and nodded. But googling when I got home, I discovered this article in the peer-reviewed journal Neuroscience from fifteen years ago. Basically, exposing mice to a bacteria that lives in the soil (Mycobacteria vaccae) triggers an immune response that raises serotonin levels. In other words, the body’s immune response to this bacteria actually makes you feel happier!2

Again, that’s wild—perhaps even wilder than the little bones in our feet we’ve come to overlook. We overlook countless microscopic species in the soil that sustain our health without us ever even knowing it. But now you know.3

So next time you’re outside about to take a hike, take your shoes off—at least for a bit. Walk more outside in the dirt barefoot. Or if you don’t want to, stick your hands in the dirt—whether to do some gardening or to simply play. There are benefits to be had even beyond the good feeling of growing your own food. We are connected to Earth, and removing the plastic barriers (whether in the form of sneakers or gardening gloves) between us and the countless microbial beings that are our brethren makes sense and will even make us feel better.4

Even better: garden barefoot! (Image from Rodolfo Clix via Pexels)


1) Perhaps that’s the question behind this “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything!”

2) Want more on this research? This article from 2017 details another decade of research on this bacteria’s role in psychological health.

3) A third bit of weird and mind-opening information I learned recently came from a comment to one of the Gaian Reflections. This one about “parasite conservation.” Parasites are often seen as “bad,” so the idea of conserving them is not really on most scientists’ radars. But there are some fighting to classify and conserve these organisms. Considering they have significant (and probably many unknown) effects on human health, as well as other species’ fitness and habitats, it sure makes sense to conserve these, as well as tread lightly, preventing the irreplaceable loss of species we barely understand. What other wonders do soil bacteria or parasites hold? What other ways do they improve our wellbeing that we don’t yet understand?

4) Obviously, not if the soil is polluted or has foreign objects, like glass or other contaminants in it. Always be careful as our feet and hands aren’t tough like they used to be and there are more toxins in our environment.

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